Though new films from Quentin Tarantino and Bong Joon-ho have yet to be seen, The Lighthouse could easily end up being the best film at the prestigious 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
The film, which screened as part of Cannes’ out-of-competition Directors’ Fortnight program, defies time. Shot in black and white, and in a nearly square, 1.19:1 aspect ratio, director Robert Eggers’ follow up to The Witch plays almost like a silent film, evoking primal horrors that feel ancient and eldritch. It’s the kind of movie that makes you excited to be alive to witness what talents like Eggers — and his stars, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe — are capable of.
Like The Witch, The Lighthouse is a period piece (set in 19th-century Maine, to be exact) that uses every nuance of the time in which it takes place, from dialect to music to clothing, to throw the audience off-balance. The film opens with the repeated, percussive crash of waves against the prow of the boat bearing Thomas (Dafoe) and Ephraim (Pattinson) to their four-week shift running the lighthouse. Thomas is an old hand, a grizzled, stereotypical seafarer with a limp, and a habit of farting. Ephraim, his new junior mate, is green when it comes to the “wickie” business, and despite the alternating shifts stipulated in the handbook, finds himself relegated to chores while Thomas alone tends the light.
As tensions between the two men rise, mysteries larger than their respective pasts — Ephraim claims to have left his previous job in Canada simply because he grew bored of it; Thomas says his former junior mate died after going mad — start to loom over the lighthouse. Foghorns in the distance sound like bellows from the depths of Hell, and even during the day, Ephraim and Thomas seem submerged in black and grey. Only light merits a pure white, piercing through the miasma, drawing any onlookers in like moths to a flame.
Robert and his brother Max Eggers, with whom he co-wrote the script, pack the film full of references to nautical and cinematic references, with images that evoke everything from the work of Conrad Veidt to images that recall Prometheus and Poseidon. Thomas and Ephraim exist in enough of a heightened world that the twists the film takes never feel unearned: Thomas speaks like a sea shanty given human form, flowing something into Melville-ian prose, and even Ephraim’s more grounded presence starts to waver as happenings around the lighthouse grow stranger and stranger.
Though The Lighthouse veers into the surreal and horrific, like something out of the Grand Guignol, it’s also remarkably funny. Simplistically speaking, it’s a movie about two men and a phallus, and the banter between Thomas and Ephraim is bitterly droll, wobbling between affectionate — they’re all the other has — and aggressive.
Pattinson and Dafoe pull off the dynamic, managing the remarkable feat of making a two-hour movie feel no sparser for having only two people in it. Dafoe is marvelous, essentially a meaner version of Captain Haddock (of The Adventures of Tintin), the serpentine ins and outs of his dialogue making his instantaneous shifts in mood all the more confounding.
Serendipitously timed to counteract Batman casting criticism, Pattinson gives what just may be his best performance to date. Ephraim’s dialogue may not be as florid as Thomas’, but the toll that tending the lighthouse takes on him is an extremely physical one, and one Pattinson conveys by throwing himself into each expression and shift of muscle. His eyes grow feral and wide, made even larger by the black and white of the film, which spill like ink across the actors’ faces. When, at a pivotal moment, Ephraim simply begins to scream, the actor’s facial contortions seem to cause the whole frame of the film to shake.
There’s not a single piece of The Lighthouse that feels out of place. At times, it’s almost too perfect; the wide shots of the sea and the lighthouse in particular are so gorgeously gauzy and grey that they seem fake — too grand to be believed. The forces at play feel titanic to the two wickies, and they feel titanic to the viewer, too. The Lighthouse is a movie that demands letting go of trying to guess what comes next. There’s no point in fighting the sea — best to embrace the waves and be carried into the depths of Eggers’ vision.